3.10 – 4.11 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God
changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them;
and he did not do it. 4.1 But this was very
displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.
2 He prayed to the LORD and said, "O LORD! Is not this
what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish
at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to
anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from
punishing. 3 And now, O LORD,
please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to
live." 4 And the LORD
said, "Is it right for you to be angry?" 5 Then Jonah went out of the city
and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under
it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. 6 The LORD God appointed a
bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him
from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. 7 But when dawn came up the next
day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God prepared
a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was
faint and asked that he might die. He said, "It is better for me to die
than to live." 9 But God
said to Jonah, "Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?" And
he said, "Yes, angry enough to die."
10 Then the LORD said, "You are concerned about the
bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into
being in a night and perished in a night.
11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great
city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do
not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?"
6.25-34 "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will
eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life
more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air;
they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father
feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying
add a single hour to your span of life? 28
And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they
grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29
yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of
these. 30 But if God so
clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown
into the oven, will he not much more clothe you-- you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying,
'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' 32 For it is the Gentiles who
strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you
need all these things. 33 But
strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things
will be given to you as well. 34 ¶
"So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its
own. Today's trouble is enough for today.
relationship between humanity and the natural world
has been one of hardship and toil
since humans first
emerged from the great rift valley,
to go forth and multiply
upon the earth.
struggle for survival is as old as our species,
and we have battled on many fronts
over the millennia.
early competition with other hominids,
to struggles to adapt to hostile
diseases and disasters,
to famine and crop failure.
have been at war with planet earth
in a battle for survival since the
current fights about fossil fuels, global warming, and climate change
are simply the latest skirmishes in
a war that has claimed more lives,
and done more damage, than any other
conflict in the history of humanity.
it is no surprise that the Old Testament,
or the Hebrew Bible as it’s
reflects this struggle for survival
in many of its narratives.
who told these stories down the generations,
passing the wisdom of the Israelite
tradition from parent to child,
first hand what it was to do battle with the earth;
and in their stories they reflected
on what it might mean to be human.
what we find in their traditions
are a range of responses to the
of how humans might exist in
relation to nature.
Genesis creation narrative, for example,
starts by affirming the goodness of
from the heavens above,
to the depths of the ocean,
and everything in
and it locates humans as part of
this God-inspired created order.
it goes on to describe
the fracturing of the relationship
between humanity and nature,
pointing the finger
firmly at the sinfulness
of the representative
humans of Adam and Eve
originators of the battle for survival.
we fast forward to their sons Cain and Abel,
we meet the battle between the hunter-gatherer
and agrarian lifestyles.
first developed in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East,
where Israel is located,
sometime around 10,000 years ago,
we have an echo of this in the deadly conflict
between Cain the cultivator of land,
and Abel the herdsman.
suggestion of this story is that God is more pleased
with Abel’s animal
than with Cain’s grain,
of course it’s ultimately Abel who dies at Cain’s hand,
and it’s Cain and his descendants
to continue planting the land and
reaping the harvest.
then we come to the story of Noah and the flood,
with God washing his hands of the
whole created order,
and ordering a total
wipeout and reboot,
with just Noah and his family and a
selection of animals surviving.
to the Noah story,
human sinfulness had so spoiled
that the whole thing was
ruined beyond salvation,
and just needed to be destroyed and
re-created from scratch.
I could go on, and on, through the wisdom tradition and the prophets,
through the books of history and
describing the battles
for land, the times of famine,
all the stories of
plague, pestilence, and hardship that humanity has faced.
in all of these, the Hebrew way
has been to try to reflect before
on the relationship between humans
and the natural order.
so we come to the book of Jonah,
which is many things, including, I
want to suggest,
an ecological parable in the
tradition of the Hebrew wisdom literature.
have already seen over the last three weeks
how the Book of Jonah is a satire on
how it is a
psychoanalytical exploration of the human psyche;
how it challenges our assumptions
about God’s love;
and how it asks its
readers to think beyond themselves
in their understanding
of divine mercy and judgment.
this week, as we conclude our summer series looking at this little book,
I want to suggest that it also has
something profound to say to us
about the relationship between
humans and the natural order.
clue comes right at the end of the book:
did you spot it when Luke read it
for us earlier?
again to verse 11. God says:
“And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that
in which there are more than a hundred and twenty
who do not know their right hand from their left, and
also many animals?"
always worth paying attention to the way biblical stories end,
and this one ends with many animals.
we’ve spotted this, when we start to read back into the story,
we find that the natural world
plays an especially prominent role
in the book of Jonah.
with me a moment, and we’ll go back over it…
book starts with Jonah being called to go and preach a message
of repentance to the great city of
but deciding to do a runner in the
opposite direction, and jumping a ship.
this point, the forces of nature start to move in against him.
We’re told in the 4th
verse of the first chapter that
“the LORD hurled a great wind upon
and such a mighty storm
came upon the sea
that the ship threatened
to break up.”
soon as Jonah puts himself where he shouldn’t be,
he finds himself at war with natural
forces way beyond his control.
the sailors on the boat ask Jonah what’s going on,
he realises that there’s a link
between his own disobedience to God
and the disturbance in the natural
he says to them that he’s a Hebrew,
a worshipper of the God who made the
sea and the dry land (1.9).
goes on to tell the sailors that if they pick him up and throw him into the
the great storm will quiet down and
their lives will be spared (1.12),
and this is, of course,
link between Jonah and God and the natural order
moves at this point from the
theoretical to the practical,
as Jonah’s actions are seen to have
a clear effect on the forces of nature.
then they take a turn from the practical to the surreal,
as instead of drowning in the sea of
Jonah find himself in
the belly of a fish,
and not just any fish,
but a fish provided by God to rescue him.
story is at pains to tell us that this isn’t some random act of luck
– rather, God is at work in the
to bring Jonah back to where he
should be in the order of things.
Jonah is spewed up onto dry land,
as he escapes the clutches of the
and makes his way to Nineveh to
preach his message of repentance.
the response he gets is astonishing, and actually quite funny
– not only do the people repent, not
only does the king repent,
but so do the animals!
king even issues a decree,
demanding that both humans and
animals together must fast,
and put on sackcloth;
with human and animal voices
together crying to God for mercy. (3.7-8).
course, what Jonah knew would happen does happen,
and God lets the wicked city of
judgment, no fire from heaven, no punishment,
just mercy and compassion.
doesn’t suit Jonah at all, and so in disgust that justice has not been done,
he wanders off to sit under a
shelter and sulk.
sun beats down on him, relentlessly baking him into submission,
but then God appoints a bush to grow
up by him,
giving him some shade
from the sun,
and for a little while
he seems to lift out of his bad mood.
then God appoints a little worm to come and destroy the tree,
and then God sends a sultry wind and
and Jonah decides that he’s had
enough of these games and that he wants to die.
has been merciful to the wretched Ninevites
with their comedy cows in sackcloth,
seems to be setting the whole of nature systematically against Jonah.
course, it’s all a matter of perspective,
and so with the set-up complete,
Jonah and God have their big argument.
Jonah said, "It is better for me to die than to
9 But God said to Jonah,
"Is it right for you to be
angry about the bush?"
And he said,
"Yes, angry enough to die."
10 Then the LORD said, "You are concerned about the bush,
for which you did not labor and
which you did not grow;
it came into being in a night and
perished in a night.
11 Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city,
in which there are more than a
hundred and twenty thousand persons
who do not know their right hand
from their left,
and also many animals?"
(4.8-11) The End.
Jonah pitied the plant, but did not want God to
irony is inescapable, and the inconsistency of his position becomes obvious.
God is not the God that Jonah thought and hoped
does not judge as Jonah judged,
Jonah had set himself above God,
at odds with nature,
his attempt to create God in his own image.
And those of us reading Jonah’s story are
invited to join him
reflecting on our own place within the natural order.
recurring theme in all of this is that whilst Jonah is disobedient to God,
the natural world acts not only in
obedience to God,
but also to bring Jonah back to a
right relationship with both God and nature.
here’s the parable.
Jonah represents humanity.
He represents all of us.
We are Jonah.
the lesson of the parable is that when we humans, like Jonah,
put themselves at war with God and
the consequences are catastrophic.
the hopeful message of the Book of Jonah
is that God is also at work through
the natural order
to bring humans back to a place of
repentance and restoration.
humans have consistently created a philosophical and practical division
between ourselves and the rest of
the natural world.
don’t think we can entirely blame Descartes,
but his famous dictum ‘I think
therefore I am’
is probably the best summary of this
‘think’ have come to view animals as automatons incapable of consciousness,
and so we have taken permission to
treat animals as, in effect, machines,
which exist as a means rather than for their own sake.
this, of course, we are acting entirely against the wisdom of Genesis
which declares that all of creation
nonetheless we consistently choose to see nature as a tool to exploit,
and animals as a means to an end.
built our civilisations on a human-centred view of the world,
which regards nature as a commodity
available exclusively for our benefit.
unfettered and rampant exploitation of nature
is challenged by the story of Jonah,
consistently discovers what we must also learn;
that when we place ourselves over
and against nature, there is hell to pay.
are a part of the natural order, not separate to it.
And we can no more run from our
place in God’s creation
than Jonah could run from the
presence of God.
humans keep placing ourselves at the centre of our own story,
we place our own desires above our
responsibility to the planet,
and so we create a situation where
we are at war with nature
in a struggle for survival.
the story of Adam and Eve’s rebellion
told over-and-over again in each
as we somehow convince ourselves
that we’re right and God must be wrong.
the story of Jonah is that in God’s world,
it is compassion that lies at the
heart of the story.
mercy in Jonah’s story is extended to all creation.
God has compassion on the just and
on animals, plants and
the story of Jonah we find our human-centred view of creation challenged.
We, like Jonah, have to learn that
God is not just ‘our’ God,
but that he is the God
of the entire earth,
from animals to plants
to the elements to Nineveh itself.
is not there to be exploited by humans,
as if the two were somehow
rather humans are a part of the natural world,
and all exist together and continue
to co-exist because, and only because,
of God’s compassion.
itself suffers because of human greed and idolatry,
and the voices of the animals are
crying out in our time for mercy,
every bit as much as the animals in
Nineveh cried out for compassion.
and the natural world will rise and fall together,
and the wilful human destruction of
is a sin against the nature of God.
what to do…?
there’s an interesting comparison to be drawn
between the story of Jonah and the
and the story of Noah and the flood.
stories begin with a threat of destruction
against wicked people for their
stories involve a perilous sea journey.
Both stories involve animals.
interestingly, both stories also involve a dove.
You see, Jonah means ‘dove’,
and in both stories, it
is the dove which flies off and eventually returns,
bringing the hope of
Noah’s story the dove brings the olive branch
which marks the end of the flood.
in Jonah’s story,
Jonah is the dove that brings the
message of repentance.
there are important differences.
In Noah’s story, God destroys the
along with almost all of
the natural order,
with only Noah’s family
and a few select animals
repopulate the earth.
In Jonah’s story, God is merciful to
the wicked city;
and the natural world,
represented by the animals of Nineveh,
many ways, Jonah’s story is a reversal of Noah’s,
and offers a hopeful glimpse of God
at work in the natural world,
calling humans to discover ways of
living in peace with creation.
what might this mean for us tomorrow?
Should we re-think our addiction to
meat, for example?
is no doubt that there are far more sustainable ways
of feeding humanity than feeding
cows, pigs, and sheep
and then shooting them
and eating them.
may or may not mean that we fully embrace vegetarianism,
but it should certainly challenge
to the animals on which we are
dependent for our ongoing existence.
might want to think carefully about issues
of animal experimentation, exploitation,
and genetic modification.
could well ask ourselves at what cost are we at odds
with the natural world in our own
certainly is a cost, but whether we are counting it or not is far from certain.
GM crops do hold the future for feeding humanity,
but if so, where does that leave our
battery chicken farms,
and our herdsmen
we are not careful, the conflict between Cain and Abel
could easily resurface in
to haunt a globally warmed world
which is struggling with mass starvation.
are issues that Christians cannot and should not turn away from.
We cannot afford to hide our heads
in the sand
and eat ostrich instead
we need to keep ourselves educated and informed,
and to take informed and educated
as to how we will partner with God
in the care of this world
that has been entrusted
message of Jonah is that God has not given up on creation,
and that neither has creation given
up on humanity.
are part of nature, we are part of God’s good creation,
and we are called to repent of our
of our exploitation, of
our destructive patterns of living.
the invitation is that if we find ways together of existing in harmony with
we are opening ourselves up, with
the inhabitants of Nineveh,
to the compassion and mercy of God.
are called to repent of our acquisitiveness,
to turn away from our obsessions
and to discover together what it
means to live as children of this earth.
as Jesus put it:
"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your
you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body,
you will wear.
Is not life more than food, and the body more than
26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor
reap nor gather into barns,
yet your heavenly Father feeds them.
Are you not of more value than they?
27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to
your span of life?
28 And why do you worry about clothing?
the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,
29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not
clothed like one of these.
30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field,
is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven,
he not much more clothe you-- you of little faith?
31 Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?'
or 'What will we drink?'
'What will we wear?'
32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these
indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.
33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his
all these things will be given to you as well.
34 "So do not worry about tomorrow,
tomorrow will bring worries of its own.
Today's trouble is enough for today.
have been helped in the preparation of this sermon by reading Yael Shemesh,
‘“And Many Beasts” (Jonah 4:11); The Function and Status of Animals in the Book
of Jonah’, Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, Volume 10, Article 6.
Jonah 1.1-17 Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah son of
Amittai, saying,2 "Go
at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their
wickedness has come up before me."3
But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went
down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went
on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.4
But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea,
and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break
up.5 Then the mariners were
afraid, and each cried to his god. They threw the cargo that was in the ship
into the sea, to lighten it for them. Jonah, meanwhile, had gone down into the
hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep.6 The captain came and said to
him, "What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps
the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish."7
The sailors said to one another, "Come,
let us cast lots, so that we may know on whose account this calamity has come
upon us." So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.8 Then they said to him,
"Tell us why this calamity has come upon us. What is your occupation?
Where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are
you?"9 "I am a
Hebrew," he replied. "I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made
the sea and the dry land."10
Then the men were even more afraid, and said to him, "What is this that
you have done!" For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of
the LORD, because he had told them so.11
Then they said to him, "What shall we do
to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?" For the sea was growing more
and more tempestuous.12 He
said to them, "Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will
quiet down for you; for I know it is because of me that this great storm has
come upon you."13
Nevertheless the men rowed hard to bring the ship back to land, but they could
not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them.14 Then they cried out to the
LORD, "Please, O LORD, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this
man's life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O LORD, have done
as it pleased you."15
So they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its
raging.16 Then the men
feared the LORD even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made
vows.17 But the LORD provided a large fish to swallow
up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
Psalm 139.7-12 Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can
I flee from your presence?8
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are
there.9 If I take the wings
of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,10 even there your hand shall lead
me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.11 If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me, and
the light around me become night,"12
even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for
darkness is as light to you.
Matthew 12.38-41 Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to
him, "Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you."39 But he answered them, "An
evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it
except the sign of the prophet Jonah.40
For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea
monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart
of the earth.41 The people
of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it,
because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater
than Jonah is here!
Sometimes you just have to
laugh, because if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.
Or shout. Or punch things. Or people.
On balance, laughter is
probably the better option.
The best comedians and
satirists help us laugh at things
that we might otherwise be too afraid to face,
and in so doing can open our
eyes and minds to perspectives on the world
that would otherwise remain closed to us.
There is an interesting
debate to be had as to whether there is any subject
that is too serious, or too offensive, to ever be used in
and I can see the arguments on both sides.
Sometimes, something matters
that to laugh at it would seem like trivialising the
But sometimes, something
matters so much,
that if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry; or shout; or punch
things; or people…
In which case, laughter
rather than violent retaliation
may well be the most appropriate response.
For those of us who enjoy
shows like Have I Got News For You, Mock The Week,
The Now Show, or The News Quiz,
the experience of being
invited to laugh at something serious is nothing new.
And this is exactly what’s
going on in the book of Jonah.
It’s a funny book about a serious subject.
It invites its readers to
laugh at the sacred in the face of the profane.
It is, to coin a phrase, deeply funny,
in that it is both funny, and deep.
I don’t know if you’ve been
down the road, to the other end of Shaftesbury Avenue,
to see the hit West-End show The Book of Mormon?
It’s a show which lies
somewhere between the hilarious, the offensive, and the profound.
Certainly, if you don’t like rude language, don’t go.
But in the midst of the
humour, the singing, the dancing, (and the swearing),
it also offers a fascinating exploration of
with some great insights into the complexities of reading
From an authentic
interrogation of God in the face of appalling suffering,
to an affirmation of the power of religious narratives
to effect positive transformation,
The Book of Mormon is, I
something of a modern day Book of Jonah.
For those of you who haven’t
it’s the story of two young Mormon missionaries,
extremely reluctantly, sent to serve their time
in a particularly lawless part of northern
Whilst they’re there, they
become embroiled in conflict with the local law-lord,
who is something of a cross between Mugabe and Idi Amin,
and is hell-bent on imposing his own violent view and
misogynistic of the world
on the inhabitants of the local villages.
The Elder missionaries who
are already out there have discovered
that the locals are particularly resistant
to their attempts to preach the Mormon
and so far none have repented of their pagan ways.
And so the young missionaries
start to preach their own creative version
of the Mormon message of repentance and transformation…
And I’ll stop now, because I
don’t want to spoil the story for you…
After all, we’re only looking
at Chapter 1 of The Book of Jonah today,
and we can’t skip to the ending too soon.
So, Jonah reluctantly hears
the call, to go to the city of Nineveh,
possibly the most lawless, violent and sinful city in the
world at that time.
Then, as now, that particular
area of what we would call Iraq,
was at the eye of the storm for an oppressive regime
hell-bent on propagating its vile, violent, and
misogynistic view of the world.
These days, we know Nineveh,
once the largest city in the world,
by the name of Mosul, a city of a million inhabitants.
It stands beside the River
and is the largest place currently under the rule
of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
A decade ago, 35,000
Christians lived there,
today, the best guess is 3,000.
The horrors enacted on the
local population are beyond imagining,
and surely the city can lay claim to being one of the
closest places to Hell on Earth
that we know of.
And here’s the question.
If you were called to go to visit ISIS in Mosul,
would you want to take with you?
What proclamation do you think ISIS needs to hear in
I think many of us would
conclude that they only understand one language,
and that’s the language of violence.
They speak it fluently, and
maybe the only way to stop them
is to meet violence with violence.
The calls to engage ISIS with
to wipe them off the face of the earth,
so they cannot continue to spread their
of hatred, oppression, and radical
is a call which echoes with ever more compelling power
not just through the Western Christian world,
but also through the vast majority of the Islamic
who wish to pursue a moderate, peaceful, and
This is a call that the
prophet Jonah would have related to.
The reason he’s so reluctant
to go to Nineveh,
is because he’s called to go there with a message of
not a message of destruction.
He wants Nineveh wiped off the face of the earth for its horrific,
He wants God to rain down fire from heaven on the evils
of the evil city,
and to see the regime of terror learn what it
is to suffer.
He wants, at the very least, an eye for an eye and a
tooth for a tooth.
What he doesn’t want, is a
message of love and forgiveness.
The Book of Revelation: Currents in British Research on the Apocalypse
The Plainly Revealed Word of God?
Questions of Identity
Wisdom, Science and the Scriptures
Prayers of the People
The Way the World Ends?
Bible and Justice
Delivering the Word
Dictionary of the Bible and Western Culture
The story of Women in Ministry in the Baptist Union of Great Britain
The Book of Revelation - Bible Society
The content of this blog represents my own personal opinions, and not those of any organisations with which I am affiliated. No offence is intended, and no animals were harmed in the making of this website.